Essays

Planet of the Humans exploits our unprocessed climate grief

Planet of the Humans exploits our unprocessed climate grief

After watching Planet of the Humans (POTH), Michael Moore and Jeff Gibbs’ recent film about the ecological crisis, I found I had a sympathy for it that was hard to understand. After all, the movie is premised on misleading science and unjustified attacks on leaders of the environmental movement. The failures and falsehoods of this movie are by now well documented. Then what was this sympathy about? What chord was it striking in me? And what might others’ reactions to this film illuminate?

With Planet of the Humans, the production team aims to take down the idea that green energy will save us from climate change, and to provoke deeper and wider conversations about how we’re living in relation to our planet. It has two main attacks—pointing out deficiencies in solar and wind energy, and critiquing biofuels and environmental leaders who once supported them. It presents a grim and hopeless picture of our situation, one in which we have been sold false hope and been betrayed.

The film was extremely controversial, was met with intense criticism, and was taken down from YouTube after being watched 7.5 million times in about a month.

A deeply flawed movie

Planet of the Humans uses outdated and misleading science, portraying the state of renewable energy roughly ten years ago as current and using out of context examples. The directors claim that this doesn’t matter, that what they are trying to reveal is the delusional and almost religious nature of our faith in green energy, which has been unchanged over the decade or so over which they made the film.

It’s interesting that their overall point may be true—there are significant limitations to wind and solar, and it’s unlikely that we’d be able to maintain our current lifestyles while transitioning completely to green energy. But since the movie is based on inaccurate science, much of the conversation about it has focused on debunking the science and dismissing the movie, or, on the other side, defending the movie and denying the validity of the criticism. Although the directors hoped to avoid conversations focused on technical details, their use of misleading science guaranteed that that would be the result. In my experience, it hasn’t yet resulted in genuine conversation about how much of a green energy transition is truly possible, or how we might change the way we live.

The other major thrust of the movie is an attack on Bill Mckibben and other environmental activists and groups for being corrupted, and again they miss the mark. But, taken impressionistically and ignoring the particulars, their general point is true—there are environmental groups corrupted by financial interest, well documented for example by Naomi Klein in Capitalism vs. the Climate. Again, the odd combination of an emotionally resonant, generally valid larger point built from a pile of falsehoods seems perfectly designed to generate fruitless debate.

Lastly, the movie raises questions that environmental movements have been grappling with for years and decades as if they were new, without presenting any of the ideas, projects, organizations that seek to answer them. For example, the idea that just changing our energy system won’t solve our ecological crisis is found in groups spanning the indigenous sovereignty movement, the techno-optimists of drawdown, de-growthers, eco-socialists, and eco-spiritualists, each with their own analysis and vision.

The producers counter that given the lack of progress the environmental movement has made, disruption by outsiders is needed. But their timing is poor: over the last few years, the climate movement has been gaining momentum, especially through youth climate strikes, and has developed a policy agenda that is unifying and inspiring. As the movie ignores the depth of understanding in the environmental movement and the momentum it’s built, things that people have devoted their lives to out of their love for the world, it’s easy to understand why it’s provoked such pushback and frustration.

Feeding on despair

And yet, in spite of all of this, there’s a part of me that’s still sympathetic. The movie speaks to my pain and frustration with the failures of the climate movement, my grief and despair about the ecological crisis. If you relax your eyes and allow the details to blur out, the emotional arc of the film comes into focus. It’s a story of a journey from curiosity and optimism through questioning, betrayal, and ultimately, despair. And in relation to climate change, despair resonates now.

There’s been a patronizing tendency in the climate movement to only find hope and optimism acceptable, at least in it’s public-facing messaging, out of the belief that the message must remain positive to prevent people from becoming overwhelmed. This limiting of acceptable responses happens both in the relationship between activists and the general public, and culturally within activist organizations, leaving people’s anxiety, despair, confusion, and grief unspoken and unaddressed.

In contrast, Planet of the Humans opens with asking people on the street how long they think it will be before humans go extinct, openly embracing despair. The appeal of this movie is a reflection of widespread unprocessed climate grief. It speaks to this dimension of our emotional lives when there are few things that do.

By mirroring these emotions, POTH elicited my sympathy. These emotions, our grief and despair, flow from our care for humanity and all of life. By validating them, this part of me felt seen and accepted. When the movie is denounced and rejected, this important part of myself is felt to be denounced and rejected. Extrapolating to others, is it any wonder that the movie is vigorously defended?

On the other side of the argument are people who have invested their hope and energy into a green energy future. In what for me was the most compelling part of the film, the producers interview Sheldon Solomon, who argues that we fixate on green energy to avoid facing our mortality. Might some of the defensiveness be resistance to facing the possibility of climate catastrophe?

Accompanying climate grief

The journey of living with the truth of our precarious situation, of learning to live in the emotional landscape of climate change, including the despair, grief, and anxiety, is essential. We need to learn how to carry these weights without falling into cynicism, how to stay connected to the love at their roots. We need stories to teach us the way and communities where we accompany each other along the way.

Planet of the Humans fails in this regard. It leads us into our despair and leaves us there. For some, this is doubtlessly part of the appeal. Despair abdicates responsibility, our obligation to act. To know what will happen is a relief—it’s harder to live with not knowing, to grapple with finding an appropriate response to a wildly uncertain future.

A different climate change documentary that attempts to do this is Josh Fox’s How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Cant Change. The film paints the grim picture of climate change, and then explores the courage of those resisting around the world, including those most impacted. But it’s really about the director’s journey through despair to renewed hope, and the possibility of finding joy in spite of loss, learning how to hold both.

I’d also like to highlight Extinction Rebellion as a movement that tries to make space for climate grief. In their introductory talk, Heading for Extinction and What to Do About It (& Pt. 2), they aim to tell the truth about our climate emergency, give time to grieve, and call for courage rather than hope.

From controversy to constructive conversations

Now that the debate about Planet of the Humans has quieted down, I hope we can move on to constructively engage with some of the questions it gestures toward:

  • How do we process our collective grief and come out with grace and compassion, not bitterness and cynicism?
  • How do we make meaning of our lives in the shadow of possible climate catastrophe?
  • How can we change how we live together on this Earth? If changes beyond adopting green energy are needed, what does humane de-growth look like? Are there possibilities for more meaningful and happier lives within it?
  • Can we create a compassionate society in the midst of climate disruption and prevent the rise of eco-fascism?

Posted by Edmund Mills in Essays, 0 comments
Can we stop Climate Change? A different kind of hope

Can we stop Climate Change? A different kind of hope

One of the questions that’s been haunting me is ‘will we succeed?’ That is, will we succeed at stopping climate change? In my social world, this isn’t an acceptable question. It brings up the possibility that we might not, the overwhelming scale of that catastrophe, our grief, our feelings of helplessness, the pain of our complicity. It’s a difficult question to open to. But I think it’s essential, both for our personal lives and our collective response.

Part of the fear of facing this question is that our fragile hope will collapse into grief and despair. These feelings are a natural part of living in these times, stemming from our love of life. Personally, I want to live facing reality, including difficult truths, so that I can respond appropriately—for my both the welfare of myself and others. Opening to the uncertainty of our success and the emotions that orbit it can be the beginning of a path to psychological resilience and a new hope, grounded in realism.

Collectively, we fear that engaging the possibility of failure has the potential to undermine political action. But it’s important for activism too to be rooted in realism. Just as facing this question individually is part of the path to individual psychological resilience, facing it collectively is an important part of developing the collective resilience of our movements and our society.

A False Binary

The question of success or failure in responding to climate change is a false binary. Rather than success or failure, we’re facing an escalating intensification of climate disruption that is softened by whatever amount of greenhouse gas emissions we’re able to prevent.

Scientists have tried to define limits under which we’re relatively safe—1C, 1.5C, 2C. While this is important for policy making, it creates the illusion of binary success or failure. Keeping global warming to only 1.5C or 2C is unsavory to consider a success. On the other hand, it matters tremendously how far above 2C we go.

The environmental movement has taken these targets and used them as rallying cries to catalyze action. The latest is that we have until 2030 to reduce our emissions by half in order to stop catastrophic climate change. While this offers an inspiring goal and a sense of urgency, it says that if we don’t succeed, it’s ‘game over.’ It creates a sense of desperation, and out of our desperation, we might seize hazardous ideas it would be best to consider with extreme caution—ideas like geo-engineering, eco-facism, austerity, and de-growth, which I’ll say more about in future pieces. Given the existential dimensions of the crisis, if success and failure are the only options and it’s looking like we won’t succeed, how could we not fall into despair?

A Different Kind of Hope

An alternative to this kind of desperate hope, the hope of needing the future to turn out a particular way, is a hope that encompasses uncertainty. As Rebecca Solnit says:

Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes — you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.

Living in the rugged wilderness of this hope demands a measure of courage. However, in return it offers abundant blessings:

  • It encourages us to find refuge in our intentions rather than our success or failure. By developing a generous and caring motivation as a basis for action, rather than desperation, we gain access to inner treasures like wellbeing, joy, and perseverance.
  • Living with uncertainty allows us to consider the range of outcomes more broadly and with more nuance. For example, Charles Eisenstein asks, what if we succeed by completing our conquest of nature? What if we create a concrete world capable of supporting human life, but in which we live in climate-controlled bubbles, completely alienated from the natural world? There’s more at stake than just winning.
  • By acknowledging the variety of our possible futures, we can find a course of action that is adaptive and beneficial in a wider range of futures. We can then consider climate change adaptation—not out of pessimism, but out of a balanced and realistic hope.

Resist or Adapt?

Underlying my question of whether we’ll succeed or fail is the question of whether my energy would be better spent on climate change mitigation or adaptation. As the first question is a false binary, so is this one. Given the climate disruption baked in, and the impact of greenhouse gas emissions wherever we are along the curve of global warming, we need to do both. Rather than seeing them as two separate endeavors, they can be seen as streams of a single transition.

Joanna Macy calls this transition to an ecological civilization the Great Turning, and divides it into three parts—blocking actions that prevent further harm, the development of new systems, and changing the worldview and culture that enable environmental destruction. Whatever new systems we develop must be both ecologically sustainable and resilient to climate disruption. And more than that, they must be humane and socially just. This flows from the need to change our worldview—the same view that allows the exploitation and disregard for nature allows the exploitation and disregard for our fellow human beings.

There are many areas of practical convergence between climate change mitigation and adaptation, including transforming our food systems, building local community, healing civic society and institutions, fighting the power of capital, preserving and restoring local ecosystems, and shifting from a domination-based culture to a reciprocity-based one. All of these help reduce anthropogenic climate change, and will also help us live through it. Because they contribute to both mitigation and adaptation, these efforts are valuable whether we win or lose the fight against climate change.

The scope of change needed and the variety of areas of action call for a broad movement that encompasses many types of responses—a diverse ecosystem rather than a monoculture. This creates room for all of us to offer our gifts and be included in this movement, the Great Turning.

Finding a path forward, an individual and collective praxis that doesn’t depend on winning or losing, allows us to relax into the work rather than being caught in uncertainty and anxiety. This shift in itself is a shift from seeking domination over and invulnerability from nature to rediscovering our humility as a species. In turn, this helps us be aware of the impact of our actions and enter into a reciprocal relationship with the ecosystems that support our existence.

Posted by Edmund Mills in Essays, 0 comments
Back to Normal, Apocalypse, or Hope

Back to Normal, Apocalypse, or Hope

Let’s let go of hoping that things will go back to normal. I don’t mean that we’re doomed to continue with how things are now, whether that’s being in lockdown, coping with a pandemic, or experiencing economic precarity. Rather, this moment of disruption has opened a tremendous range of possible futures, none of which is guaranteed. The new possibilities range from hopeful to dismal. We needn’t be passive victims—our choices influence the course of events. The fluidity of our situation allows us to imagine a new future and bring it into being.

Is this the Apocalypse?

The world is not ending, but we are facing an apocalypse in one sense of the word’s etymology: that of lifting the veil. As the pandemic lifts the veil, makes obvious truths that are usually easier to ignore.

The pandemic reveals our collectivity and shared vulnerability. It’s true that we’re all in this together, in our shared vulnerability to this illness and the disruption it’s bringing, even as some of us are in it up to our ankles while others are in over their head. This shared vulnerability can activate our generosity, compassion, and solidarity, as we see, in one example out of many, in the daily shows of gratitude for medical workers. This has always been the case, in that we are all always vulnerable to illness and death, to natural and human-made disasters. The pandemic simply makes it more salient.

It also reveals how our lives are intertwined, that our actions are important and touch the lives of countless others. When we act collectively, as we are doing with social distancing, we can save the lives of millions. This too has always been the case—that we have the power, especially when acting collectively, to dramatically influence the course of events.

The past few months have brought the unknowability of the future to the fore. Uncertainty is a fundamental reality of life and history, but there are also phases of relative stability and instability. To the extent that we’ve experienced the recent past as at least somewhat stable, the intensity of the disruption we’re experiencing marks a shift into a more unpredictable time—brought by the pandemic itself, its economic, social, and political effects, followed by the accelerating impact of climate change.

Why can’t we go back to normal?

As we enter a time of instability and loss, it’s natural to wish for things to go back to normal, to return to stability and predictability. Yet the pandemic has started many massive secondary processes of change that won’t automatically be reversed when the pandemic is over. The implications of these processes are uncertain, and their course depends on our choices. To hope to go back to normal is to disempower ourselves and close the paths to the more beautiful possibilities.

In the past three weeks, 17 million people filed for unemployment, almost twice the number of jobs lost during the Great Recession. Economists are projecting levels of unemployment comparable to or larger than the Great Depression. These cannot help but have massive ripple effects throughout our economy, leading to an intense economic crisis . I don’t pretend to know what will happen, but I don’t think we can count on a ‘V-shaped’ recovery.

Another of these processes is our social recession,”a fraying of social bonds that further unravel the longer we go without human interaction”. This matters for our social lives and wellbeing, but it also has the danger of degrading civil society through the atrophy of local and communal organizations. We may become more atomized and isolated, leading to further collective disempowerment.

Thirdly, disruption and crisis are an opportunity for those in political and economic power to consolidate their power. Civil liberties are under attackenvironmental protections are being dismantled, and the government response to the unfolding economic crisis is skewed to benefit large corporations over people. These actions use the cover of the crisis to gain passive acceptance, hoping to pass off a diminished new normal for the old one.

The Possibility of Hope

Can we find any hope here? Hope, as defined by Rebecca Solnit, is acknowledging that the future is unknown, and that you can influence the outcome. In Hope in the Dark, she writes:

Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes — you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.

The economic, social, and political story of this pandemic are still being written, and the future depends on our collective individual choices. We could passively fall into an economic calamity, or we can use it to advance economic justice, just as labor strikes in the Great Depression won the New Deal. We can let our society slip into further social atomization, or we can use this opportunity to strengthen civil society and build collective social power through organizing while sheltering in place. We could accept going back to normal, though a diminished one, or imagine and create a new world.

Through our practice of social distancing, the pandemic is teaching us about our interdependence, as well as our agency. It teaches us that that our personal behavior, in concert with that of others, can make a difference. Let’s not forget this. Rather let’s extend our understanding of it, and realize that by joining with others in movements, we can make profound differences for everyone in our society.

What new possibilities can you envision for the world? What kind of world would you like to return to when this is over? How can you help make that a reality? Particularly, who can you work with? What organizations, local or national, could you join to help bring about your vision?

Posted by Edmund Mills in Essays, 0 comments